My Factory in Lilliput (Sep, 1953)

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My Factory in Lilliput

A scoffing friend told the author, “Build models and your income will be the some size.” But he was wrong!

By Dale Clark As Told To James Joseph

I WAS only a kid not yet in high school when I set up my first shop. My folks were living in a Twin Falls, Idaho, motel and an old table was the handiest surface into which I could stick pins. The pins held down balsa spars which eventually became a Corbin Super Ace model airplane. When I finished the model I promptly sold it to a kid next door for a buck.

That’ workbench became a veritable model-aircraft production line. And I sold almost everything it turned out. Even before graduating from high school I began to realize what millions of others called a hobby was really a business—in miniature.

When I locked myself in my room and tinkered over precision scale models, my mother used to console herself.

“The boy will outgrow it,” she said hopefully. But I never did.

Today, Dale Clark and Associates, Los Angeles—a business founded on exactly $3.33—grosses more than $75,000 a year. We specialize in plastic and metallic scale replicas. Our most recent “big time” project was a working two-ton model of CBS’s Los Angeles Television City complete with lights, cameras, shrubbery and a model audience. We even scattered a dozen match-head-size cigarette butts along its corridors for that chain-smoking and jangled-nerves studio effect. We got $20,000 for the three months, 18-hours a day that it took my wife, Mike, our 15 employees and myself to complete it.

Thirteen years, 200 model airplanes, 150 boats and 100 miniature racing cars after my first plane, I discovered that models are also the “open sesame” to sacrosanct chambers. This startling discovery came even before my graduation from New York’s Cooper Union College when I barged into the office of Norman Bel Geddes, the famous designer. Tucked under my arm was a miniature skyscraper. Bel Geddes took one look at the model and offered me a job.

“You could have shown me fancy art work,” he later confided, “but models speak a lot more eloquently.”

Sales managers, real estate brokers, inventors and scores of other businessmen just now are finding that out.

One day a New York inventor handed me a stack of blueprints. “Need a pre-production model of this cigarette lighter,” he said. Until then I’d thought model making was pretty much confined to toys and architecture. Suddenly a vast new horizon opened; almost every product on store shelves started as a working model. I turned out a brass lighter in seven days and collected $500. There was nothing difficult about the job. It merely involved adapting simple metal-working tools to the model-making techniques I’d learned as a kid. Later I made model fountain pens for the Waterman Pen Co., working typewriters for inventors, flashlights for the Army.

Once a gadgeteer hired me to mold a half-scale rubber fire hydrant for puppies. My wife spent hours roaming 3rd Avenue sketching hydrants while a concerned crowd trailed at her heels trying to decide if they should summon the men in white jackets. Puppies took to the rubber hydrants just as eagerly as did their parents to the real thing.

In 1947 when I was 23 and my wife 20, we hitchhiked cross-country to California. Although I’d designed and built scores of models while working as an industrial designer in New York, it had been part-time , work.

Once I’d confided to a friend that I wanted to build models for a living. “Build little models,” he scoffed, “and you’ll have an income about the same size.”

We arrived in Los Angeles broke and I went to work for Lockheed as a draftsman. Things looked pretty dismal. We had less than $100 and I was haunted by that old superstition: “model making is just kids’ stuff.”

Sure, I could put together model airplanes, houses and boats. But so could millions of other hobbyists. Trouble was, like my fellow model makers, I didn’t know how to convert a hobby into a full-time, profitable profession.

Then one evening an acquaintance who owned a Venetian blind factory dropped around. He was singing the blues. “Got a good product,” he moaned, “but housewives never see it.” He explained how his salesmen carried samples in bulky cases. Before they pried off the lid, housewives slammed the door in their faces.

Next day my wife and I invested our total working capital—$3.33—in plywood and hinges and got to work. Our apartment’s kitchen became our workshop. We had one machine, a 5-in-l tool (combination drill press, lathe, disk sander, circular saw and router). We designed a lightweight carrying case from which a blind unfolded into an eye-appealing, easy-to-demonstrate display. Ten days later we had our model. Fifteen minutes after we showed our idea, we had an order for 500 full-sized kits at $30 each. I promptly quit Lockheed and bought a six-inch joiner so we’d get the kits’ corners trued.

When our kit order was delivered, things were still tougher than reindeer steak. Businessmen looked upon models as expensive toys. We tried convincing them that life-like replicas were glib salesmen.

One day, desperate, I dropped by a real estate office with a model house.

“Can’t use it,” the realtor said, showing me the door. But just as I was leaving, he grumbled to a salesman, “Isn’t there some easier way of selling those mountain lots than driving prospects 90 miles to see them?”

There was! An exact contour map of the property. For $500 (we get $4 to $10 an hour for routine jobs, plus cost of materials) we built a foot-to-a-mile contour with each lot marked off and neatly price-tagged. The realtor set the contour model up in his office and sold ten lots the first week without once taking a client out to the property. The model paid for itself out of profits from a single sale.

We rented a little shop for $50 a month, moved in with our 5-in-l tool and six-inch joiner, and took a $10 ad in a real estate paper.

A church’s fund-raising chairman called. He wanted a model that would show the existing church and the four proposed -wings which he was trying to finance.

“We’ll be able to show our parishioners exactly what their contributions are buying,” he said. Our model, built after studying 10 pounds of blueprints, raised money twice as fast as the planners had anticipated.

A few months after our church job, a plant engineer visited our modest workshop.

“We’re building a brand new factory,” he announced, “and I’m wondering if you can make models of each of our production machines. That way, we can pre-plan our new plant layout even before the building is up.” Models, the engineer thought, would help anticipate materials and handling problems. “Should help streamline production, too,” he added.

We visited the old plant, took photos of many of the machine tools and came away with an armload of blueprints. These we transformed into some 300 models, exact replicas of every major piece of equipment. If a machine had a turntable which protruded into an aisle, our model also had a turntable, but of wood.

Later the engineer told us, “We’d expected to start production in six months. Using your models, we turned out our first order in 90 days.”

We’d received $10 an hour, plus materials, which ran the contract to four figures. But when you consider that the models reduced their setup time by three months, our bill was insignificant. Now hundreds of plants use models to redesign departments and streamline their operations.

The armed forces, schools and institutions are model-making prospects. A naval district on the west coast keeps track of its ships and vehicles by moving two-dimensional models on a big board. We spent almost a month on the project.

Gradually, of course, we worked into bigger jobs. A movie studio paid us $5,000 for a photogenic replica of a famous old sailing ship. “A lot less expensive than blowing up a $500,000 life-sized vessel,” the director said.

Jurors, we discovered are just as susceptible to models as are prospective home-owners and factory planners. Take the oil company which commissioned a model contour of a pipe line’s right-of-way to sway a jury in a personal liability suit. “This case is tangled in technicalities,” a lawyer for the company told us, “and I’m betting that a scale model will convince a jury where maps and drawings would fail.” It did. The jury ruled in favor of the company, an almost unheard-of-precedent in cases of that nature.

Our most lucrative project based on cost-per-square-foot, as most big jobs are figured, was a working replica of a chemical plant. At $1,000 a square foot, it was probably the highest price ever paid a model-maker. Later the architects admitted they’d bought a bargain for their $10,000. They carted the miniature plant all over the world, even to Saudi Arabia, and used it to sell two life-sized plants at a half-million dollars apiece.

We operate a sizable mail-order department. Advertising in various construction trade magazines and by word-of-mouth brings in orders from all over the country. Clients send through their plans. We give them an estimate. When the model is finished it’s shipped in a stout crate, often by air.

You can build a comfortable house for about $10 a square foot. Yet we have clients who eagerly shell out $100 a square foot for a house too small for even the tiniest of midgets.

Maybe that’s because our houses are different. Their “Spanish tiled” roofs are really red-dyeo\ macaroni. Green sponge trees grow in their coffee-ground front yards. Hung at plastic windows are Venetian blinds made from match sticks sliced paper thin. Press a button and their roofs open, revealing completely furnished interiors with chairs, tables and beds—all scaled to the tiniest detail.

Our Los Angeles shop is extremely modest, only a slight improvement over the model-making setups which thousands of hobbyists have in their own basements. We rent 2,000 square, feet of space for $125 a month. We employ 5 to 15 model-builders, all former hobbyists, who earn about $2.35 an hour.

Our $4,000 investment m a dozen wood and metal-working machines includes two band-saws, one 18-inch and the other 24-inch, for wood, plastic and brass. A 10-inch circular saw powered by a one-hp motor is one of our most valuable production tools. Recently it backboned production of several hundred replicas of a new-type plywood garage door which a company ordered for point-of-sales counter advertising. Another handy tool is a heavy-duty drill press whose 12-inch throat will accept various milling attachments. Still an old standby and in everyday use is that 5-in-l tool with which we started business. Our newest machine is a hydraulic press with an eight-inch diameter head, capable of exerting 200 pounds per-square-inch on wood or plastic (dental plaster) dies. From simple dies, which we design, are turned out acrylic plastic model furniture, factory machines and other miniature props.

A hobbyist intending to commercialize his model-making talent must convert his thinking from balsa wood to stronger, more long-lived materials: plywood, plastics, hardwoods and metals. Most commonly used replica metals are aluminum, brass and lead. Balsa wood is fine for kit enthusiasts, but it’s far too perishable for commercial models.

If you can read plans, you can make models for industry. Patience and a penchant for details are as important as technique. A typical commercial model replica of a two bedroom, 1,200 square-foot house, % to %-inch scale, requires about two days’ work and costs anywhere from $50 to $150.

Just like a regular contractor we start with the foundation and build from there, laying out the model on the architect’s plans. We rely upon improvisation, the model-maker’s stock-in-trade, to cut material costs and give our replicas life. Windows are cut from 1/16 to 1/4-inch Lucite, heated over a Bunsen burner and fitted into miniature window frames. Coarse sandpaper, spray painted, becomes the asphalt shingle roof. Coat the house’s plywood exterior with plaster and you’ve got stucco.

Our 15xl4-foot CBS Television City model was one of the most detailed ever built. Electronic controls lift its roof. Walls move and a two-way magic mirror ceiling allows viewers to see the floor below. My wife, who is a fashion designer, molded more than 200 lead-solder (50 per cent lead, 50 per cent solder) figurines. Lead-solder is pliable and figures molded from it look animated and alive. In the CBS model lead-solder people loll in the audience, perform backbends on the studio stage and peer intently at miniature camera controls. Incidentally, the model’s lawn is “replanted” every day or so by sifting chopped-up grass over its glue base. Models of this size often bring additional fees for maintenance.

Millions of model hobbyists have a profession at their fingertips if they would only realize it. Within the last decade, model making has become a highly paid profession. But the public, I’m afraid, still looks upon model building as a pastime. Recently I was talking with a portly gentleman at a fountain-lunch counter.

“You mean you build models for a living?” he asked sympathetically and charitably picked up my lunch check.

2 comments
  1. Effort says: February 25, 20094:37 pm

    “…18-hours a day that it took my wife, Mike, our 15 employees and myself to complete it.” His wife is named Mike?

  2. Amanda says: March 5, 200911:21 am

    Wow! That is indeed awesome, man-made richness. I am also following my passion-constructing garage doors and I do hope I would be able to follow your footsteps.Thanks for the inspiration!

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